Open key and slide guitar involve an advanced method of playing the guitar that allows a guitarist the opportunity to develop their own unique style of playing. Many musicians use open key tuning without using a slide while others may be strictly slide players. However, many professionals use a combination of open key tuning and slide to get a unique quality sound.
Slide guitar involves using a glass or metal slide on the guitar strings to create a smooth, ascending or descending pitch transition on the fretboard. This adds a certain nuance to the sound especially in country and western where a pedal steel guitar is used and in Hawaiian style where a basic guitar is tuned differently. A pedal steel guitar is tuned to chords and the tunings can change with the use of the foot pedals that change the pitch of the strings. Many Hawaiian guitarists developed their own unique tunings leading to a unique Hawaiian tuning style all their own known as slack key. Some tunings were actually handed down father to son and guitars became a part of the culture in the Islands.
Open key and slide techniques offer a means to create a versatility in playing that has a very professional quality. Tuning open key basically involves changing from the traditional tuning of E, A, D, G, B and E to tuning to a standard chord tuning. There are four types of chords; major, minor, augmented and diminished. For open key major and minor chords are commonly used. Augmented and diminished chords are rarely ever used. A major chord is a result of combining a major interval with a minor interval. A minor chord is just the opposite, it involves combining a minor interval with a major interval. An augmented chord is two major intervals while a diminished chord is two minor intervals.
Seven Rules You Need to Know to build chords.
1. The name of a chord is always the first note of the chord.
2. A chord is made up of at least 2 intervals.
3. These intervals will be either Maj 3rds or minor 3rds.
4. A Major 3rd interval = 4 half steps
5. A minor 3rd interval = 3 half steps
6. A Major chord has a major 3rd and a min 3rd
7. A minor chord has a min 3rd and a major 3rd
An interval is determined by the distance between the differing pitches. In music theory, there are a number of different types of intervals. For our purposes, we are only going to concern ourselves with major third intervals and minor third intervals. It takes three notes to build a basic chord, i.e., root, third & fifth, and the order of those notes, major interval or minor interval or minor interval and major intervals will determine the type of chord, i.e., major chord or minor chord.
One of the most basic open key tunings is an E tuning. This tuning is very basic and familiar to most slide guitarists and it is thus easy to work with. With the standard E chord in the C major diatonic scale, we’re only looking at having to alter the tunings of three strings. The first note in the chord is an E, therefore, the name of the chord is also E.
An E major chord requires a major interval and a minor interval. A major interval has four semitones and a minor interval has three semitones. E to F is a semitone, F to F# is a semitone and F# to G is a semitone, G to G# is a semitone (four semitones makes a major interval), G# to A is a semitone, A to A# is a semitone and A# to B is a semitone (three semitones equals a minor 3rd).
Think in terms of the root, third and fifth, i.e., E, G# and B. So, the notes to the E major chord are E, (major interval of 4-semitones, i.e., E to F, F- to F#,F# to G, G to G#) G# (minor interval of 3-semitones, i.e., G# to A, A to A#, A# to B) B. E, G# and B. Simple right? It is.
The root is always going to be the name of the chord and is followed by either a major third and or a minor third. Remember, a major chord consist of a major interval and a minor interval and a minor chord consist of a minor interval and a major interval.
Notice that the notes of a standard tuned guitar are E, A, D, G, B, and E. The notes we need for an E tuning are E, G# and B. The lowest string is an E so no change needed on the number six-string. Just leave it alone and go to the next string. The next string is an A. We can’t use the A so let us take it up on a note we can use. The closest note to the A is a B. So, the A will be tuned up to a B. The next string is the D. We don’t need a D so we will do the same thing and take it up to a note we can use. The closest note up is an E. so, the D will be tuned up to an E. The next string is the G. The G# is one of the notes we need so we will need to tune the G natural up to a G#. Tune up just a half step. The next string is the B. The B is one of the notes we need so we will leave the B string alone. Finally, we have the high E. Since E is one of the notes we need, we will leave the E string alone as well.
We have now tuned the guitar to an E chord. The notes are now E, G#, E, B, B and E. Notice that there are now two Es and two Bs and one G#. The notes are all thirds apart, either a major third or a minor third.
Let’s look at the notes needed for an E minor chord. We know that we will start with an E natural. We then count off the semitones starting with the E natural as the E natural is the root. E natural to F natural (remember there are no half notes between the E and the F or between the B and the C) is a semitone. F to F# or Gb is a semitone and F# or Gb to G natural is a semitone. These three semitones are a minor interval. We have E to G, so now we need a major interval to get the fifth. G natural to G# or Ab is a semitone, G# or Ab to A natural is a semitone and A natural to A# or Bb is a semitone, A# or Bb to B natural is a semitone. That’s four semitones, a major interval. So, we now have E, G and B. This is how we will tune the guitar.
We know that the chord of E minor has three basic notes – E natural, G natural and B natural. Notice once again that the notes of a standard tuned guitar are E, A, D, G, B, and E. The notes we need are E, G, and B. Let’s start with the low E at the top, aka, the number six-string. Our chord has an E so no changes needed on the number six-string. Just leave it alone and go to the next string down. The next string is an A. We can’t use the A so let’s take it up to a note we can use. The closest usable note to the A is a B. So, the A will be tuned up to a B. The next string is the D. We will do the same thing, let’s take it up to a note we can use. The closest usable note up from the D is an E. so, the D will be tuned up to an E. The next string is the G. The G is one of the notes we need so we don’t need to tune the G natural. The next string is the B. The B is one of the notes we need so we will leave the B string alone. Finally, we have the high E, aka 1st string, Since E is one of the notes we need, we will leave the E string alone as well. OK, we’re now tuned to E minor.
We have discussed standard chords, 7th chords, as the name implies, are built by adding another interval to the chord. For a bright or funk, jazzy, blues sound, try tuning to an E major 7th chord. 7th chords are used in a variety of different styles of music and are especially useful in blues and jazz. The principal is basically the same as building your basic chord. Root, third, fifth. Now, add a seventh. In most cases, a minor third is added but, a major third can be added just as easily. Seventh chords are just an extension of the basic root, third, and fifth.
What we’re doing when we change from standard tuning to open key tuning is we are modifying the basic tuning to a piano format. We’re going from a standard guitar tuning that is primarily in fourth intervals to a tuning method that plays in thirds like a piano. This type of tuning gives an opportunity for some simple playing patterns in music.
You’ve probably heard of a “bar” chord. A bar chord is a standard chord whereby you use your first finger like a capo and a chord progression is produced at the various frets. So then, if you play an E chord by strumming the open strings, you can use that same tuning and place your first finger at the A fret (space after the fourth fret). With the first finger acting as a capo, the notes at the fifth fret will now play as an A chord. Two more frets up will make a B chord.
When you play tuned to an E chord, you can move that fingering position up and down the fretboard with your first finger or a slide acting as a bar. An E would be in the open position, moving up one fret would be an F, Moving up two more fret positions from the F position would then be the G. Two more fret positions from the G would be the A… and so forth.
When you have the guitar tuned to the E chord, you can simply bar across the strings to get these chords. When you use a slide in open key, regardless of what chord you’re tuned to, you’re basically playing bar chords.
This is great for slide because the slide style involves playing the notes straight across the same fret. If you are tuned to an E chord and you want to get that basic blues sound, you will want to focus on using the open E, the A on the 5th fret and the B on the 7th fret and the E octave at the 12th fret. This is a one, four, five, progression. Not only is it the one, four, five progressions popular in old-style blues, it is also great for basic rock and roll and even country and western progressions. Another great feature of open key tuning is being able to go back and forth from fingering the fretboard to using the slide. Being that you are tuned to a chord, this makes for excellent transitions back and forth so you can sound like two different guitarists playing together.
Open key and slide are a method of expanding on guitar technique. Experimentation is the best teacher when it comes to this technique. Although not a professional musician, I like to compose my own music. I don’t play as often as I did when I was younger and I find that it takes much of my time just trying to stay proficient at playing the music I have composed. Playing my own music gives me a means to express myself and I can take both good times and bad times and put them into my music. Slide guitar, for me, is an avenue to the songs in my head and in my heart. I can’t imagine life not being able to express what I feel from within.